Pilot Knob • Cargo Muchacho Mountains
• Imperial County


Viewed from the west
 

The trail enters a main west-facing canyon
 

Now nearing the top ridge, looking back down at the steep route
 

A lower-case "t" marks the top. This is the "airway beacon" summit mentioned on the maps and is the highpoint of the peak
 

Looking southwest at the lower cairned summit. A white plume of smoke is seen in the background
 

The cairned summits as seen from up close
 

Looking northwest from the cairned summit, the little town of Felicity is below
 

View of the peak at sunset from Yuma
 

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Date: November 26, 2016 • Elevation: 880 feet • Prominence: 595 feet • Distance: 2 miles • Time: 1 hour and 10 minutes • Gain: 600 feet • Conditions: Cool and overcast, smokey air from a fire in Mexico

Pilot Knob is a lonely rocky mount located in extreme southeast California, about a mile north of the Mexican border and a mile west of the Colorado River and Yuma, Arizona. The peak stands alone, just 880 feet above sea level, but with nearly 600 feet of prominence, observing that the desert here is barely 200 feet elevation. It is a volcanic plug, ostensibly a part of the Cargo Muchacho Mountains that rise a number of miles to the north.

This singular bump is an anomaly in this region, where the Colorado River passes to the east, watering the farms around Yuma (AZ), Winterhaven (CA) and those south of Algodones, Mexico. The land is completely flat, then suddenly, this little peak juts above everything. A popular long-term camping area run by the BLM sits to the west of the peak at Sidewinder Road off of Interstate-8. Lots of people hike the peak for exercise.

Its other common name is "Avikwala", whose spelling can vary depending on the transliteration (my spelling comes from Tom Nunn's Yuma-area hiking books). It sits near the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, and near one of the main crossings of the Colorado River before railroads and highways were invented. The peak can be seen from miles away and would have been a natural landmark for this reason.

There are two main summits separated by a quarter mile. The southwest summit features a large cairn and is listed at 874 feet elevation, while the northeast summit hosts a cross, a couple simple electronic apparati, and is enclosed within an 880-foot contour. Observing one from the other, this northeast summit is definitively higher. On the map, it is marked as hosting an "airway beacon", which apparently is not true, unless such beacons are now about 18 inches tall these days.

A year ago—December 31, 2015 to be exact—we stopped here on the way home from our yearly Anza-Borrego vacation so that I could make a quick dash to the summit and back. Beth was okay with this plan, waiting for me back at the truck. I drove us along the gravel road that runs west of the peak and saw an obvious trail coming off a saddle on the south end of the mountain. It was the most substantial trail I could see so I assumed it was the way to the top.

From the truck, I walked about a half-mile across the undulating gravel and sand plain to the trail, then followed it steeply but quickly to the saddle, a gain of about 250 feet. Here, I met a Canadian couple, who "confirmed" that I could get to the summit from here.

I went left and started up steep rock slope, using hands, progressively getting higher. Things started to get a little more scrambly than expected, and I began to suspect I may have made an error. I kept going up until I surmounted a bump, then saw a big steep drop of a couple-hundred feet below me. I had cliffed myself out and could not proceed. More importantly, I saw a trail along the ridge north of me. That was the right trail. I returned the way I came and back to the truck. Pilot Knob 1, Surgent 0.

For this Thanksgiving holiday, Beth and I deliberately drove to Yuma to spend a few days out of town. I planned two hikes, Pilot Knob being one of them. Both were close to town and could be done early in the mornings. We stayed at a Best Western near the Yuma Mall. With Black Friday upon us, there were heavy crowds all around, but we were not affected as we didn't participate in those stampedes. I hiked Telegraph Ridge on Friday, then Pilot Knob Saturday (today).

From the hotel, I only had to drive about ten miles to get to Sidewinder Road. I exited, went south, stopped for snacks at the Chevron, then drove slowly on the west-side road, looking for where this other trail, the one I had seen last year, started. I found it, parked and started hiking at 7:10 a.m.. The sky was cloudy and overcast, the temperature about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. I was about 280 feet elevation here.

The trek across the flats covered a half mile and took about 10 minutes. I was now on this trail. It ascended to a lip, where I could then see the main gully-canyon that it would parallel all the way to the top ridge. The trail was easy to follow and well defined, but littered with volcanic rock. It was steep, gaining about 450 feet in a quarter-mile.

Nearing the top ridge, I came to a T-junction, the better trail going left, a lesser trail (but still well-defined) going right. I could see the 874-foot summit and two large cairns, so I went right and hiked to this peak in a matter of minutes. So far, I had been hiking about 30 minutes. Once at this "cairn" summit, I could see the 880-foot summit close by, and it was obvious it was higher, possibly by a good 10 feet.

I followed trails back to that T-junction, then more trails up to a lesser ridge and back to the main ridge, and in minutes, was at the top of the 880-foot summit. A bump about 50 feet to the northeast seemed equally high so I walked over to tag it. This summit has the cross and small metallic things. I could find no sign-in register.

Looking around, I could see deserts to the north, the rock quarry on Pilot Knob's north slopes, and dozens of trails that seemed better than the one I had come up. I could see Yuma to the east, the Colorado River, the All-American Canal, the city of Algodones in Mexico, and a plume of white smoke from a field fire in Mexico. Looking west, I could see lots and lots of desert. The overcast skies and general moisty-haze in the air blocked out long-distance views.

I hiked down the way I came up, going carefully due to the loose scree of rocks in the trail. Still, I was down and back to my vehicle quickly, a round trip hike of 80 minutes. I took time to change and relax, shoot a few photos, then drive out and back to the hotel in Yuma. It was still early, so I showered, napped, and watched some shows with Beth.

That afternoon, we visited the Yuma Territorial Prison, a fascinating structure in use from the 1870s to 1909, then later as a school and as emergency shelters. It has been restored and is now a tourist attraction. I had been here in 2005 and wanted to come back with Beth. Later, we would venture to a couple of the stores at the mall to see the damage wrought by the masses. Everything had been picked over and all over the floors. We scored a few basic items for ourselves.

We stayed another night then drove home the following morning. We enjoyed our trip to Yuma. There are other attractions surrounding the city and we'll be back.

(c) 2016 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.